Hentyle Yapp: Hi I’m Hentyle Yapp, here with an office hours installation for NYU Skirball and I’m here with…
Kyle Abraham: Hi, Kyle Abraham.
HY: So I feel very lucky to be here today. I’ve been a huge fan of your work for some time now. It really is quite amazing and I’m really happy that Skirball’s bringing “Live! The Realest MC.” So I thought we’d just kind of start off with what informed the work? You know, it seems like it’s sort of the bildungsroman, coming-of-age, Pinocchio, real person, realness, like all these sort of concepts. I just was curious if you want to sort of introduce the general piece and how it came about for you.
KA: Sure. I think in some ways “Live! The Realest MC” was influenced by an earlier work that I made, a solo called “Inventing Pookie Jenkins.” The subject matter and themes are somewhat similar for “Inventing Pookie Jenkins.” I am wearing this kind of floor-length tutu and dancing to Dizzee Rascal’s “Respect Me.” And for me it had a lot to do with this kind of feeling in the high school and kind of later middle school years to just try and put on this like bravado that wasn’t really part of who I am or was. To kind of either go unnoticed or to kind of just feel like I could be viewed more like a real man in the same way that in this version of the Pinocchio story, kind of putting on this kind of queer hip-hop lens to be kind of viewed as a real man. Something that I used to do was I would be in my visual art classes which were one of the only classes that I had where it was kind of Gen Ed. Everybody was kind of mixed together. I think people started accepting me because I could recite rap lyrics to different artists that I like, “Oh okay, oh my you know Jeru the Damaja, okay,” just stuff like that. And it kind of started to create this kind of shift for me in the way that I interacted with people and kind of gained acceptance from some of the students in the school.
HY: So when you mean “people,” do you mean like specifically folks in the black community or the larger public in general?
KA: Sure, yeah, definitely people in the black community, in my community in particular. But I think because I was a black student in certain kind of accelerated courses, there weren’t many people that looked like me in those classes. But beyond that, the way that I spoke seemed to black folks that I wanted to be white and to white folks that I was gay, without ever having the conversation about my identity or anything like that. So I had to deal with all that since I was a little kid. That was always the reality. I’d always be in these classes with maybe one other black student, maybe two and have these kind of similar conversations that we would have when we’re on the outside and things like gym or art classes or what-have-you. So this definitely is a work that is a lot of ways trying to kind of create a kind of character of myself to blend in with with my community, with a black community particular.
HY: So I guess part of it asking that question is to think about how your work both engages questions of intra-racial, as opposed to interracial dynamics, and how that kind of builds around certain gender norms that are also racialized in that kind of way. So that’s actually a helpful pervient of looking through the piece. So I’m actually now curious about the process. It seems as if it grew from a solo and then it’s a company piece. How is that like sort of general formal artistic process worked for you in terms of thinking from the solo form into the company form?
KA: Yeah, you know, it’s really tricky. I think there was even a period where this work was even a solo version. I used to for the early years like “The Radio Show” from 2010 and then into “Live! The Realest MC,” I made solo versions of both of these shows. I only did the solo version of “Live!” probably once at the Time Based Arts Festival, TBA Festival, in Portland, Oregon. But other than that, it’s been this group version, which I think grew in a lot of different crazy ways. There was a period of time where we had a residency at Wesleyan University to build out this work but my father passed away the day that I was supposed to leave to go to the residency. I still had to go because I had to speak and do all this stuff, so it was a really weird time. But my dancers as amazing collaborators they took part in the residency without me. I would call in and speak to one of my former dancers, Rachelle Rafailedes, and I’d say things to Rachelle, just giving her word association to develop movement. And that’s how some of the phrases in the work were built and a lot of other structural things came about throughout time. Even adding one dancer because initially there were only two men in the work but I felt like it needed more of a certain type of energy. That a guy who was dancing in the company in other works could really help bring, especially for some of the humor that I was interested in.
HY: It’s interesting to think about the formal process of the words into movement. Is that sort of a common process that you’ve used, or?
KA: I’ve used it in some works. Ideally, I like to switch some things up. Ironically, the thing that was a major breakthrough for me choreographically wasn’t employed in “Live! The Realest MC.” So it’s one of the only works from 2009 to 2019 that I didn’t really videotape myself moving at all. Actually, no. I did. Yeah, good. I could take that away. I remember now there’s a mic solo that Keerati in the company now does, but the initial dance or at least I videotaped myself doing that. And the same thing with now CJ when he’s doing this solo in what we consider the second act that also was videotaped. Maybe those are the only things. but at least there is something, so I can say there’s been this through line.
HY: I’m also curious how the piece resonates with you. Like so if you’re saying 2009, then you have the premiere in 2011, and then now 2019… I’m also thinking about the rapid changes that have happened since then: the era of Obama in terms of like 2008 and then sort of Black Lives Matter really coming into a sort of a larger public discourse (I mean it’s always been there in some ways) so I’d say 2012-2013, and then obviously the different presidency that we’re under now. So I’m curious if in terms like the social political context of how you sort of see the work situated or in the three performance does it feel a little different now or not?
KA: Doesn’t necessarily feel different for me as the maker, because the themes that I’m addressing are still themes that we’ve been fighting for well over the last ten years. So hopefully you know I think we’re trying to get to a place where we can feel certain types of progress. I do think there has been some progress in terms of inclusion with regards to like a fight for something, but that’s not necessarily even new. I think maybe there’s a little bit more visibility for people who didn’t feel seen, but there’s still a long way to go. But I don’t know, I hope that people are seeing this work all these years later and still connecting with it in some way or finding it valid. I mean I’m really grateful that Jay asked us to come and present this work because we started thinking about putting it back into the repertory primarily because of the microphone solo that Keerati’s doing in the show now. We did it for a fundraising event and my agent really liked it. I was like “Oh yeah, we can throw that back in,” so we started remounting the work but not doing it in a city like New York, which has a really critical audience. I was really nervous and still I’m really nervous about the New York audience and the way they perceive and receive something that is older, especially coming after things that have created more visibility towards me and the company. New audiences are coming to the work after seeing maybe something like a piece I made for New York City Ballet. You know, how are they then going to look at this work I made from 2011. It’s not new but it’s new to some. I think it’s probably in some ways a response in my mind to a review that came of a work that I made which premiered in 2017. It had already been performed in New York in 2017, but had kind of returned in 2018 just weeks after the piece I made for the Ballet. So a critic was looking at the work from 2017 without actually realizing that it’s something that came before this ballet. It’s a curious thing to think about the ways people think about progression of work and one’s artistic voice.
HY: So what are some of the… you don’t have to divulge if you don’t want to, but what are some of the paranoias that you sort of feel around revisiting a piece from 2011 into today? Considering you know you’ve had a really successful career…
KA: It’s all subjective.
HY: It is. And I appreciate your humility, but you know in the standard measures of our world, I mean, you’ve done quite well and you’ve also crossed so many boundaries, especially the New York City Ballet work and continuing to really push off an Aileys Repertoire. There’s just so much that you’ve kind of been able to accomplish in the past few years, so I was actually really interested in like the revisiting of 2011. How does that… I mean you’re kind of touching upon it but I’m curious are there particular themes that you feel that are really helpful right now or that feel good to revisit in a certain way?
KA: I don’t know. It’s just really scary… I don’t know…
HY: It’s just the condition of being an artist.
KA: Yeah but it’s also you know generally if I’m reading a critique, I’m reading it well after it’s come out. And I’m reading it at a point where I can actually look reflectively and say, “Okay what could I change? Or what is the lens that this critique is coming from? And how does that possibly apply to a revisiting of a work?” I generally read them when I’m already sad, because I’m like if it’s bad news, I’m not gonna feel any worse and if it’s good news, it’s not gonna make me feel better. I’m just a downer of a person anyways. So if I’m in that state I can just look at it and be like, “Oh that’s really nice let me grab some tissue and cry somewhere.” So I think there’s something about reading some of the critiques that came out of 2011 that made me really reconsider certain things. I think maybe because I was in it before it wasn’t as easy to look at the trajectory of other characters really other than myself. So it was exciting to have an opportunity to dive more into that and have my collaborators be so willing to be open to changes and learning these new little nuance things. It’s humbling also to try and give all of the feedback that I have to give on the work that I used to perform. It’s a lot easier to give notes generally to the company on like dance phrases but when it’s the text that I wrote or these little things that I was playing with as a performer, I’ve never really been in that space to have to try and give that information and it’s really humbling.
HY: It’s like when the performer becomes the archive.
HY: And there’s also so many questions around… As a professor, I get older and my students stay the same age. And I always imagined my friends who were choreographers, as you get older, the body of dancers that you generally have around you, you know, they stay kind of in that same age category. It’s a funny kind of, I imagine, relationship around remembrance, things that you’ve created for your own body and then how to manage that relationship when you become the archive.
KA: Yeah and there’s certain things that I was doing in my version that, movement things, that had a kind of virtuosity for me that were kind of unnecessary. I was like I just did this move because it was cool so I’m like, “Let’s actually find a better solution here.” I think that that’s happened in a couple places where we’ve found a better way into storytelling than just doing some crazy move.
HY: I’m also curious on how that sort of translates for you now that you’ve been doing a little more teaching. What is now as you sort of you know the shift in terms of thinking about how you become a kind of archive, a living archive for the work that you’ve been creating, the body of work? But also when you think about pedagogy, is there a relationship there that you can think of? Or like how do you sort of see difference, and how you were moving as a younger dancer and then now that you’re in a different role and relationship to producing future dancers?
KA: Sure, yeah, it’s probably much more rooted in patience and confidence. I’ve seen the ways in which my students can be super receptive to really obnoxious, minuscule feedback that can kind of like take their minds’ being in an exciting way. So I realize that they actually have something to offer. In a way, I think I was always so intimidated by my dancers because I’m like, “Oh my god they’re so amazing. There’s things that they can do that I can’t do. They’re younger than me.” And so I think now I’m at this place through my teaching that I feel much more confident in what I have to say and much more patient towards a.) the time it may take to take some of that feedback in transition and b.) the reality that just actually physicalizing notes and change take time. Even if someone picks up quickly, to make some of those transfers in the body and emotionally, it can take a little bit of time.
HY: So I’m curious what are some of those things that you feel more confident and now in terms of teaching to students?
KA: Well I feel like my dancers now are more—even if they were, maybe they were before—but I didn’t feel confident enough to give them finite feedback. I didn’t feel as if they either wanted to hear it or that it was necessary; but now I find the value in all of those things. And I see these things and before maybe I just would say, “Oh, whatever. They’ll fix it on their own.” Maybe they would but maybe it’s also nice to hear it from me, and to know that like it’s actually important for me to say something to each dancer. There’s some in the past that I’d say, “Oh, you know, whatever. I’m sure they’ll be fine on their own” and then we just go and talk to this person. But it’s great for me to at least acknowledge everyone in some way. I definitely could do better at it, but I tend to in the company model try and focus on the thing that I think really needs more attention than something else. And unintentionally, I tend to forget that everyone needs to be seen.
HY: That is very true. So I’m curious maybe if we could switch a little bit and maybe give a sense to people online—whoever’s watching this—just what brought you into dance. I know you grew up in Pittsburgh and you went to like an arts high school…
KA: Half day and only my senior year.
HY: Only your senior year. So I’m curious, what’s your emergence story in terms of dance?
KA: Sure yeah I grew up going to a lot of house parties and hip-hop parties. I was a big rave kid.
HY: I was too.
KA: My people! My mother took me to get a fake ID, so I could go see Dee-Lite at the Metropole. It was my favorite group. You can hear their music in the playlist or on Spotify. But, yeah, I used that ID to go to like the youth night at the…it sounds really weird to say youth night at the gay bar cuz it just for so many reason sounds terrible, but there was: Tuesdays and Thursdays. So in high school I would go to the gay bar and just dance all night until 2 o’clock in the morning, didn’t drink then, don’t drink now but we just danced. Me and my friends just danced all night and I started getting interested in studying dance primarily after seeing the Joffrey Ballet perform this work called “Billboards,” which was all to Prince’s music. I was a huge Prince fan and was like, “Okay, they’re doing something to Prince. I don’t know what it’s gonna be, but I’ll go and see it.” And it really pushed me over the edge in a good way. I think from elementary school to middle school I went to look at a performing arts middle school to go to one for dance. But I didn’t see anyone dancing the day I went there; they were just kind of running around the school and I was like, “This isn’t for me.” And then similarly I went again in high school from middle school to high school to consider it for high school and again everybody was running around. And the boys were chasing the girls and their tights and the girls were like slowly stopping to be chased and I was like, “This is ridiculous. Let me just get outta here.” But then having the opportunity to take a dance class, the teachers there told me that I should go half day at least to the performing arts school, so that way I can still do my academics at my main school and work on the dancing after.
HY: And then after high school, you were at SUNY Purchase?
KA: Yes, it kind of skips a year. I went first at Morgan State in Baltimore. They told me they had a dance program, which they did not. They had one dance class that was Intro to Modern Dance. They also told me to get me to go there that there would be a van to take me to classes at schools like Towson State or Goucher or something and there wasn’t. So luckily I met this woman Stephanie Powell and I went to her classes twice a week on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings. So it was meeting her and then meeting some dancers that were at Towson that came to Morgan to dance their dance club. I would follow those dancers around. Darrell Moultrie who’s actually a choreographer making a lot of amazing work today and Latricia Harper who was at Towson as well. The two of them I kind of followed around and Darrell kind of got me to consider auditioning for Purchase. And I mean he’s still one of my closest friends, but I think a lot of that had to do with dancers from companies like Bill T. Jones or all these other companies who were listed in the Alumni sheet at Purchase. They got me to go to Purchase.
HY: And then since we are at NYU…
KA: We’re at Tisch.
HY: You got to Tisch.
KA: Yes, four years later after I graduated Purchase, four years later I danced around very briefly for like a year after college and then quit dancing for several years. And my return to grad school and to NYU was to figure out what my relationship to dance could be or should be and even to New York City.
HY: So what drew you back into dance I mean because the reasons to not do dance are quite numerous: you make no money, it’s painful to your body, nobody understands what you’re doing, like it’s a bad idea. I mean I did it, you know, and I make bad choices. It’s consistent with my bad choice making but then what brought you back? Like why go back to it? What was the call for you? Because I think a lot of people struggle with that question you know when they really hit that point of “Do I stay in this or not?” Like I think it’s an interesting thing to hear: what draws people back in.
KA: Right, yeah, I mean I think when I was trying to figure out the first time, I was dating someone. We were living in Pittsburgh and we were both gonna move to London together. He was going to Goldsmith; I was gonna go to Laban to figure out my relation to dance and to be in London, which was like a dream. When I got to the school, they weren’t going to allow me to take that many of the dance classes because I was going to focus solely on choreography. It was just kind of frustrating. I’m like, “Well, I’m in this program and I really want to be moving.” And I wasn’t even allowed to work with the students there and as a maker you had to find students on the outside. I just started getting really frustrated with that and I dropped out of the school for other reasons too, dropped out of school and stayed in London. I’d take class with random people around the city and applied to NYU and just was like, “You know, just try this out again and see what this is gonna be like,” and I just kept at it. There of course were a lot of frustrations along the way and a lot of humbling things that would happen along the way but it’s kind of like dance is…I don’t know this kind of voice in the back that’s always pushing you to go forward. Or it’s this thing that like when you’re crying in your room and you just start moving, it’s still there, it’s accessible. Or even when you have an injury like I have right now I can still dance, I can still do something, express it with my body. So it’s just something that’s never left me even if I tried to leave it for a period of time.
HY: And did you always know you want to be primarily a choreographer?
KA: Yes. Yeah, even as a little kid I wanted to be a choreographer. I wanted to be a choreographer and a fashion designer.
HY: What was the draw to choreography for you? What has it been?
KA: I have no idea. I think I just loved organizing bodies. I loved dancing myself and learning more about movement and I love music. I grew up playing music and just loving music for so long that I think in some ways it was to be all the more expressive. I mean the thing about studying dance versus continuing studying any of these other art forms that I was working on or practicing it was the only thing I couldn’t really fully do in my room. I could sit down and play my cello in my room. I could paint in my room. But I couldn’t really move that much.
HY: I’m actually really curious now who are some of your biggest dance influences and then who are some of your non-dance influences? I know you’ve collaborated with Glenn Ligon, you’ve worked with Carrie Mae Weems, all these wonderful people. And you know, your relationship to playing cello, I mean you’re an artist in that larger sense of the word, not just a choreographer. So I’m curious what are some of the biggest influences for you from the dance world also outside?
KA: There are so many. Faye Driscoll’s show—by the time this comes out maybe her show will be that week in Montclair so I’m gonna go see Faye Driscoll. I love Faye. I just was texting with Camille A. Brown last night. I mentioned Bill T. already. Ralph Lemon is kind of like my artistic God in every way. I mean it drives him crazy when I say that kind of stuff but yeah I look up to him so much. Bebe Miller. I love Trisha Brown. Some of the folks that have passed on Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham. Ishmael Houston Jones. I love what he’s done for dance and for kind of just being really exploratory with another body as well in different ways and even thinking about his show “THEM,” It’s kind of remounting over the years when I first saw it, it actually influenced some ideas I was playing with in this piece clearly not as strong as in “THEM” but it definitely affected the way I looked at how the men could interact with each other.
HY: I just did the remounting this past summer. When you mentioned him, I was like, “Yes, it’s a complete cross over.” And then what about non-dance influences.
KA: Oh, right. There are so many. Well, you named Glenn, you named Carrie Mae, Lorna Simpson, Adam Pendleton and I were texting a little while ago, Theaster Gates and his whole kind of crew, The Monks… Everybody is just so inspiring. Even him just thinking about the music side of it. I was just listening to a podcast with H.E.R. the singer and musician who I really love. Prince has always been a huge influence, yeah, I mean they go on and on… Of course, you know, you can’t be from Pittsburgh and not think about August Wilson. But in the same way I would think about Baldwin or Langston Hughes. There’s just so many authors and people in theater: Tarell McCraney, whose work has such an impact. Yeah, it would take a lot of editing to get through my long list.
HY: That’s great and I’m actually really curious about… how is being in L.A. right now? Are you in L.A. most of the time or part time?
KA: Well at the moment, I don’t know. Every year I’m trying a different model. This past year I tried just being there in the winter.
HY: So you’re not here in the winter.
KA: Not here in the winter, no. Yeah, I know I’m always there in the winter, everything else is you know malleable in some way. I’m trying to figure out what the best model is for me and maybe that’ll keep shifting, but I think that might wind up being the thing at least for the next few years, of just being there the winter, of being here the other time if not on tour, but we’ll see.
HY: It’s really interesting just to see so many dance choreographers have that kind of relationship to the University in terms of, you know, there was kind of the big wave of everyone getting an MFA so that you know they could teach. But then also figuring out these kind of… you know you’re still creating work well outside the university context, but then still kind of working within that context in terms of training and stuff like that. So it’s just like an interesting shift and it’s more and more common just to kind of hear that relationship.
KA: Yeah, I mean I think it’s nice for my dancers and for me to have a little bit of that space. And my students are so inspiring that like, yeah, I come back and I’m recharged in a lot of ways.
HY: Have you had time to kind of get a sense of the L.A. dancing or has it been just so busy in terms of the teaching stuff?
KA: No, I tried. This year I didn’t try too hard. Especially when I first moved there 2016… I lived there for the full year in 2016. So that year in particular and some of the years previous, I was dating someone in L.A. for more than a couple years and trying to just like really check out the city as best I could. But I think once that ended, I just I don’t know, I kind of separated a bit from the community as well as still trying to find time to see things but also just find time to just recharge. It’s a really curious city. It’s different than New York. What I found in my last three years of this back-and-forth is that at the dance shows that I go to, the community is a little bit more broad. You actually are seeing people from totally different walks of life at a show and people coming from the different boroughs to come to a show. And now in L.A. it’s really accepted to say, “Oh, that show’s on the East Side, I live on the West Side. I’m not gonna make it,” and it’s accepted as if it’s fine.
HY: When I used to live in LA, if I lived on the east side and were trying to date someone on the west side, that would be considered a long distance relationship. So I understand the distance, not to excuse it. But in terms of the transport, I mean it’s a different sense of space.
KA: But it’s accepted and like, it’s kind of strange because it’s like 45 minutes to an hour. But to get from like Lincoln Center to BAM could take you 45 minutes and standing up, in close proximity to people who may not be aware of their space and may sneeze without covering their mouth. Like all of that you have to deal with and it’s the same length of time. And if I’m in my car, I can play my music and control the temperature. It’s really bizarre that you’re like, “Oh no, I’m not gonna make it and it’s like it’s fine.”
KA: Well I know that you also need to get ready for your performance, so maybe we’ll end with one last question which is like what are you most excited about coming up for you? What are some of the… is they’re a project or set of projects you’re really excited to be working on?
KA: There are so many. It’s tricky because some you can’t really announce.
HY: Okay, yeah, so ones you can have on the interwebs.
KA: Yeah, there’s things that I can announce but I can’t say when they’re happening. I mean the next big work I’m making for the company premieres in 2020 and I’m working with Titus Kaphar and Mickalene Thomas designing the scenic design. And it’s all set to D’Angelo music which is really fun and I can’t wait for people to see it. The dancers look so dope; they just look amazing. And I’m making a new solo for myself which is really exciting it’s all gonna be performed by an acapella choir, just really exciting but I can’t… I guess I can say that’ll be in the fall but the piece for my company won’t be in till 2020, so you got some time.
HY: Are you rehearsing here or in LA?
KA: Everywhere really. I have a residency with Lincoln Center Education so ideally I’ll start rehearsing there more. But other than that I use a lot of the resources around the city but I really love working with my dancers out of New York whenever possible, that way people aren’t so stuck on ending at six o’clock and they’re really, really present.
HY: Well, thank you so much for taking the time. I’m so glad we could chat and paired with tonight and the next few nights. And that’s such a pleasure to meet you and congratulations on everything you’ve been doing and will continue to do.
KA: Thanks, thanks for that support the vote of confidence.